Three girls are opening their Christmas presents. They all have an identical sized and wrapped present from the same family friend. There are Shrieks of joy as they tear off the wrapping paper at the same time to reveal expensive hair products. Then joy quickly turns to shrieks of horror and offence as at the same time they read the labels.
The first has shampoo for greasy hair
The second has shampoo for frizzy hair
The third has shampoo for dry hair.
Some presents are just frivolous, things to enjoy. Some presents are meant to be useful and those presents are likely to tell us what the giver knows or thinks they know about us. Careful though because presents can cause offence.
And so fittingly we come to the last carol in our mini-series on “What the Carols mean.” Christians Awake was written as a Christmas Day gift by the poet John Byrom in 1745 for his daughter Dolly. It is usually sung to the tune “Yorkshire” which may well be one of the main reasons that I like it!
In verse 1 we have these fantastic words
“Rise to adore the mystery of Love”
The Greatest Gift
The Bible tells us that at Christmas God gave the greatest gift of all with these words:
“For God so loved the World that he gave his one and only Son.” (John 3:16).
Of course people can end up giving gifts for all sorts of other reasons. Some give because they want to manipulate and bribe others, some give because they feel indebted to another and others in an attempt to placate the pleas, demands and even tantrums of the recipient. However, these are not really good reasons. The main reason that we give a present is, or at least should be, that we want to show the recipient how much we love them.
Christmas Day tells us that God has given us a gift which shows us how much we are loved by Him. When John said that God had given his one and only son, he was echoing words from right near to the beginning of the Bible. In Genesis 12, God promises a man called Abraham that he will become the father of a great nation. There’s a problem though because Abraham and his wife Sarah are old and Sarah is infertile. However, God keeps his promise and one day they have a son called Isaac. Finally after many years of trusting God even when there seemed to be no hope, things seem to be looking up for Abraham.
Then one day, God speaks to Abraham and says:
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the region of Mount Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burn offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genes 22:2)
This is one of the most shocking incidents in the Bible. What does Abraham do? He chooses to trust and obey God. When he gets there, God speaks from heaven and tells him to stop the sacrifice. God provides a ram to replace Isaac as the sacrifice.
Abraham exercises faith and is willing to obey God. However, the thing he attempts to do is in the end something that he cannot fulfil himself. The dilemma is that if he obeys, he proves his faith but the promise of a nation dies with Isaac. That’s why God provides a sacrifice.
Only God himself can offer his one and only son, his son that he loves as a sacrifice. The gift of Jesus comes at great cost. That’s why elsewhere, the Apostle Paul talks about this gift as God’s “indescribable gift.” Christmas shows through a costly gift that God’s love is unconditional and infinite. It is an amazing mystery that God should choose to love you and me to this extent.
The purpose of the Gift
God’s gift was Jesus, sent to live and die for us. The gift tells us about what God knows about us. –not just what he thinks he knows –he is God and knows us better than we know ourselves. The gift of Jesus is not just an extravagant demonstrating of love, it has meaning, and it has purpose. It is the gift that we need.
So what does the gift tell me about my need? What does it mean when someone says “your gift is a death”? The gift tells me that I needed someone to die in my place. It tells me that my condition before God is serious, that I am in real danger. Why do I need a death in my place? The answer is simple, sin is serious, sin deserves death.
We have talked often about the seriousness of sin. We’ve described the damage that sin does to others. Our envy, lies, cheating, bitterness, grudge holding, backbiting, backstabbing, cold shouldering, gossip and cruel insults cause hurt that runs deep. We talk about the evil that we see in the wider world, terrorism, drug smuggling corruption and injustice but we are well capable of causing just as much pain closer to home.
We have seen the damage that sin causes to ourselves. Bitterness eats us up, addictions take control ravaging the mind and the body. We end up carrying a burden of guilt and shame.
It is right and proper to show the ugliness of sin from these perspectives. However, it is the Incarnation and the Cross that show us how ugly, serious and destructive sin really is. You see, even when I’ve acknowledged the potential damage of sin, there’s a part of me that does not really want to admit how serious it is. I want to play my sin down. My lies are only little white lies, my insults are not cruel, they are just banter, I share information rather than gossip. Sometimes I may “overstep the mark” but then who doesn’t. By playing my sin down, I’m telling myself (and anyone who will listen) that I’m going to be okay. Things may not be quite right but there’s nothing I cannot sort out, there’s nothing that I cannot fix. This is especially true at this time of year, sure I may have let others down and let myself down this year but the New Year is coming and with it my New Year resolutions.
God’s gift cuts through my claims to self-reliance and my attempt to play my sin down. If I believe that I can sort things out by myself, live a better life, become a better person then I’m saying that the gift of Jesus, as beautiful a demonstration of love as it was, wasn’t really necessary. If I say that my sin isn’t really that serious then I am saying that the gift of Jesus was extravagant, over the top, a waste.
“If we claim we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us …I f we claim we have not sinned we make him (God) out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” (1John 1:8,10)
God gave his gift because it was necessary. Sin is serious, sin results in my death. Death is the natural consequence of sin and the just punishment. Death means that now in this world I am unable to live as intended, I am separated from God’s loving presence, I am a dead man walking. Death takes three forms, it means that I will face the pain of physical death one day, I will not live for ever. Death means that after my physical death I face eternal separation from God’s loving presence. I will spend eternity in Hell.
The truth is that I cannot fix things. I cannot sort things out by myself. The only way for me to sort the mess out is to willingly bear the penalty myself, to accept eternal separation from God’s love. If I did that, then just like with Isaac, God’s promises would die with me. That’s why God acted and gave Jesus.
The Bible uses the word “Grace” to describe this gift. It means that God offers a free gift to us. The point about a gift is that you cannot and you should not attempt to pay for it yourself. You receive a gift. The gift of Jesus as the one who lived, died and rose again means that where I deserve death I can receive life. If death as separation from God is eternal them God’s gift of life is eternal as well. There is the promise that in this World we can know God and discover what life was always meant to be about, loving God, worshipping him and enjoying Him and his goodness. Then there is the promise that death will not have the final word. There still is physical death but this becomes the gateway to life with God forever. Then there’s the final great promise that one day like Christ we will be raised, bodily, there will be a New Creation and we will know what it means to say Emmanuel, God with us, forever.
The full quote from John 3:16 is:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus was punished in our place so that we might be forgiven. Jesus died in our place so that we might live.